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Berkeley's Unequal Punishment of Teachers

The school district disproportionately disciplines black teachers and older educators with higher salaries. Are students paying the price?

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On December 12, 2012, Berkeley High School teacher Brian Crowell wrote to principal Pasquale Scuderi about a concern he and several colleagues had been discussing for years. He wanted to know why the ninth-grade history curriculum at Academic Choice, one of six educational programs at the high school, did not include an ethnic studies component. At the time, it seemed obvious to Crowell, who has taught history at the school since 2007, that the inclusion of such coursework would greatly enhance the freshman curriculum — especially for students of color. Crowell also discovered, after looking into the matter, that Berkeley High could be a violating a school board policy.

"I would appreciate if you could research this for us and get back to me," Crowell wrote in his email to the principal.

For more than two months, Crowell didn't receive a reply from Scuderi, but he did not drop the case. Crowell, who is 36 years old, black, and has taught at East Bay public schools for fourteen years, said in a recent interview that he discovered that Berkeley High had not followed through on a 2006 school board decision to integrate "World Geography and Cultures" into ninth-grade history at Academic Choice. "It's not only an instructional issue. It's a moral issue," he said. "If you want equity and you want to close the achievement gap, at least you can put ethnic studies in the ninth grade and get black and brown kids interested in history."

According to Crowell, his decision to advocate for ethnic studies, along with other efforts he made to improve curricula and better reach minority students, prompted administrators at Berkeley High to retaliate against him — and eventually to try to push him out of the school altogether.

Crowell's allegations of retaliation are outlined in a California Public Employment Relations Board unfair practice charge he filed against the district last summer. The complaint includes numerous emails between him and administrators and transcripts of his in-person meetings, all of which shed light on how his conflict with supervisors at Berkeley High intensified in 2013. The records, Crowell argues, clearly show that the district harassed him and engaged in discrimination.

After he started complaining about Berkeley High potentially being in violation of school board policy, Crowell's supervisors quickly downgraded his job performance rating to "unsatisfactory," despite the fact that he had consistently received "proficient" ratings up until that point. His supervisors also ordered him to participate in Berkeley Peer Assistance and Review (BPAR), a program for poorly rated teachers that can result in dismissal.

Although BPAR is supposed to provide teachers with intensive assistance and an opportunity to improve when they've received a less-than-satisfactory evaluation, many teachers say the program is unfair, arbitrary, and punitive. Critics contend that school administrators use BPAR as a disciplinary program to retaliate against employees in a variety of ways. In addition to targeting outspoken employees, they say the district has used BPAR to target teachers of color and older educators. Over the last decade, black and older teachers with higher salaries have been disproportionately represented in BPAR referrals.

According to data from the district, which Crowell and his supporters obtained after repeated requests of public records, 10 of the 41 teachers referred to BPAR from 2002 to 2012 were African American, and thus made up 24 percent of all teachers assigned to the program. Yet throughout the Berkeley Unified School District, African Americans account for just 6.8 percent of the total number of teachers in the city's public schools — 41 out of 605 in 2011-12 school year. At Berkeley High only about ten of the roughly two hundred teachers are African American.

At the same time, the majority of teachers who have been referred to BPAR are also over 54 years of age, and thus among the highest paid teachers in Berkeley. When it comes to female teachers, this age discrimination is especially glaring, critics say. Of 21 female teachers referred to BPAR during the ten-year period, 18 were 55 or older — 85.7 percent. Yet teachers older than 55 represent just 21.5 percent of the teacher population in the state (district-level age data was not available), meaning that older women are very likely represented at a substantially disproportionate level in BPAR.

When it comes to older teachers, according to critics and one legal complaint, it seems clear that the district is simply looking to cut costs by removing — or intimidating into early retirement — those who are paid the most. Most teachers placed in BPAR since 2002 also have been among the best trained in the district, having amassed the most post-graduate education units. "Many of the older teachers are afraid for their jobs," said Lucinda Daly, a 61-year-old Berkeley High visual arts teacher who was referred to BPAR this academic year and in response filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging age discrimination. "If you think someone's not doing a good enough job, work with them, but don't threaten them."

The demographic data and evidence outlined in legal complaints — along with interviews with twelve local public school teachers, primarily from Berkeley High — paint a picture of a district that disproportionately punishes teachers not only based on race, age, or salary, but also because they don't conform to certain standards and are unafraid to speak up about their concerns and ideas. In some cases, the BPAR-referred teachers are the ones who approach their classrooms and curricula in the most innovative and unconventional ways.

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